Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"For all the talent on display, it feels more like a TV special."

When somebody impacts the world the way that Aretha Franklin did, it’s inevitable that there will be a biopic. With that in mind, if the subject is still living, why not get them involved? This film took quite a few years to get into production, and along the way the Queen of Soul made it clear that there was only one person she wanted to play her: Jennifer Hudson.

The Dreamgirls Oscar winner may not have had many high profile film roles recently (she’s been busy with her music career, and wowing audiences onstage in The Color Purple), but she fits right in here, and her performance is the film’s strongest asset. Though she may not look all that much like Aretha – she lacks that charismatic nose – there’s something she does with her eyes which captures her expressions perfectly, and fans of the great woman will feel a twinge of longing when they see it. Crucially, she also has the force of personality needed for the role, yet knows how to subdue it in scenes set before Aretha had found her confidence or during the period when she was drowning in alcohol addiction.

Copy picture

Hudson has the stage set nicely for her by newcomer Skye Dakota Turner, who contributes a lively turn as the young singer. She, too, has tricky ground to navigate, with an abrupt shift at the point when the singer began to be abused, but she carries this off well, effectively expressing the numbing effect of trauma without letting us lose sight of key sources of joy: music, family and the Church. These three forces are the lynchpins of the film, their influence always present even when they’re out of sight. Forest Whitaker, always a treat to watch but underused these days, brings a sullen power to Aretha’s father, with whom she would clash throughout her life despite the lingering love between them. Ion the shadow of this man she made some poor choices about others, and this is addressed with a plainness which is refreshing. It’s easy to recognise the problem. We don’t need to see a woman being knocked around for hours to understand that she needs to get away, and we don’t need to be distracted by broken romances from the ultimately far more meaningful business of her finding her voice.

There are a lot of good ingredients here, but sadly, something goes wrong in the mix. A story which ought to be full of passion and fire simply doesn’t catch light, and for all the talent on display, it feels more like a TV special. Probably the biggest problem is the pacing. At two hours and 25 minutes, it’s overlong, and there’s a lot of repetition. Director Liesl Tommy seems to rely on this to make points which would have more impact if established more succinctly. A much fiercer editor would have made all the difference.

Is it still worth watching? Hell yes – at least if you’re a fan. The music is always worthy of attention, and it’s interesting to be reminded of just how many styles Aretha experimented with before finding out what really worked for her. It’s also interesting as a reflection on Black US history, with scenes focused on her engagement with the civil rights movement delivering its strongest moments. She lived through a period when Black consciousness underwent a seismic shift and whilst that time had its political heroes, the impact of her voice and her passion cannot be discounted. There are the workings of a much stronger film in this, so one hopes that Respect won’t be the final word on the subject, but in the interim, it gives Hudson a chance to portray her – warts and all – the way she wanted to be seen.

Reviewed on: 08 Jan 2022
Share this with others on...
Respect packshot
A biopic about Aretha Franklin.

Director: Liesl Tommy

Writer: Tracey Scott Wilson, Callie Khouri

Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Tituss Burgess, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron

Year: 2021

Runtime: 145 minutes

Country: US, Canada


Search database:

If you like this, try:

Amazing Grace